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A fireside chat with Prof. Ashish Verma on World Bicycle Day

Photo: Siddharth Kankaria/Research Matters

“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to cycle and he will realize fishing is stupid and boring” – Desmond Tutu

Today is World Bicycle Day, a day celebrated to commemorate the joy of cycling. In a country like Netherlands, almost every person owns a cycle, and 99.1% are cyclists! But a city like Bengaluru -- almost thrice as big  and with 12 times more population -- loses hands down to Amsterdam, in citizens choosing to cycle. Why is that so? And what can be done to make people here fall in love with their bikes?

The Research Matters team caught up with Prof. Ashish Verma, an Associate Professor at the Department of Civil Engineering, at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. His key area of research is Transportation Engineering, which encompasses analysing the current modes of transport, developing alternative models and promoting the use of public transport. He is also an associate faculty at the Centre for Infrastructure, Sustainable Transportation, and Urban Planning (CiSTUP), IISc and  Robert Bosch Centre for Cyber Physical Systems (RBCCPS), IISc. Apart from this, he serves as an editor of various scientific journals and sits on the advisory boards of various panels in the realm of transport policy.

In a tête-à-tête, he shares his views on why a majority of us in Bengaluru haven’t yet adopted cycling as a serious mode of day-to-day transportation, and what factors could be at play here.

Research Matters (RM): Dear Sir, greetings on the occasion of World Bicycle Day. In the past, you have led many pertinent studies on cycling as a mode of transportation in the context of Bengaluru.  What do you think of the potential of cycling in the city?

Prof. Ashish Verma(AV): Well, if you look at it from the point of view of a city like Bengaluru, the climate is particularly very mild for a large part of the year, which is very conducive for cycling. Likewise, there are many Indian cities where you can find a more conducive climate, at least for a reasonable part of the year, from the point of view of convenience to cycle.

Looking at the other aspects, in our research, we have realised that a lot of trips made in cities, are made for short distances. There were a good number of trips made for commuting – for work or for education – which are not for longer distances or longer times. But, in the absence of a cycling ecosystem, they are made by motorized modes of transport like cars. And these trips are potentially the ones that can be done by cycling, or for even more shorter tips, by walking. So there is a good potential for cycling, provided we create an ecosystem for it in our country.

RM: As we know, cycling has revolutionised some cities around the world and has become the most beneficial mode of transport. Why have we not seen that happen in any Indian city as yet?

AV: You know, interestingly, there are quite a few good examples where countries or cities have taken cycling to a very high level or the next level, I would say.

Today, when you look at Indian cities, we are basically kind of trapped in a vicious circle of congestion. And this vicious circle of congestion is because of the economic boom that the country started experiencing since the early 1990s, which led to a steep rise in the incomes. And the consequent effect of that was car ownership, because a car is seen as a symbol of wealth. And so, the large middle class in the country which was aspiring to own a new car, are doing so, which has now resulted in the kind of mess that we see in terms of congestion. And when you add more cars, you demand more road infrastructure, the agencies then provide that, and you have even more cars. So, you are trapped in the vicious circle.

Now, there are countries that are economies in the West, who have gone through this period of congestion. Netherlands, is a glaring example of that. When you go to this country, and if you look at the history of transportation, it was in the same mess of being in the vicious circle of congestion, almost 40-45 years ago.  But, at that time, it decided to break out of this vicious circle through a very strong focus – from planning, policy and infrastructure – on cycling. And, there was a mass movement from the people to demand for this and a strong will at the top. So it was both a bottom up and top down process that resulted in a huge shift towards improving the  usage of cycles. Since then, after 40-45 years, almost 60% of trips in a city like Amsterdam, are made by cycling. And that’s a huge number! If you look at Bengaluru or any other Indian city, it is hardly 2%, 3% or 5%.

Likewise, there are other Scandinavian countries, like Denmark for example, that has a huge usage of cycles, through a very cohesive focus.

RM: One of your recent studies, that we had covered earlier, points out that cycling as a mode of transport is not Bangaloreans cup of tea. In your opinion, why do you think that is the case?

AV: Yes, it’s because of the lack of an ecosystem. See, we have to hit this issue. Firstly, we have to understand that cycling is a very active form of transport. It will not only reduce, or help us control the problem of congestion, pollution, noise, etc., but it will also reduce the health impact of transportation because of a more active lifestyle and a more active way of transportation. So, there are widespread benefits of cycling.

The reason why it is missing is because we are lacking that ecosystem which has to come out of a very cohesive approach from the perspective of policy, planning, engineering and also behavioural issues – issues of perception and of attitude. The behaviour towards cycling, which our societies have, is that a cycle is considered as a mode of the poor, versus a car being considered as a mode of the rich.

Some interesting findings that came out from our research, especially on the behavioural aspect, was that people, in their childhood, had a very strong, positive affinity and opinions about cycling, and they did cycle. But as they moved into adulthood, a lot of people dropped cycling since they perceive moving from cycling to a motorized mode of transport as a natural process of prosperity, of growing in their career and life. So, these kinds of false perceptions that people have needs to change.

On the planning side, we have also done some research that helps to understand for what distances in different cities, people are willing to cycle. We call it as the “acceptable trip distance” for cycling, either as a main mode or as an access mode. So, you either cycle to access the nearest public transport terminal (a metro station or a transit point), or you may like to use cycling as the main mode, right up to the final destination - either to work or to school. In both cases, understanding the acceptable trip distances for which people are willing to cycle, helps in planning for the same. Presently, we are simply wondering and trying to do things in the absence of these planning guidelines.

From a policy perspective, there has to be a higher fund allocation to build infrastructure and policies that would automatically encourage the use of active modes of transport – walking and cycling. For example, the Tender S.U.R.E. (Specifications for Urban Roads Executions - a publication containing guidelines on India’s first design, specifications and procurement contract, for urban roads execution), is one of the ways to ensure you create more space for people to walk or cycle. And this has to come with a strong will from politicians and bureaucrats, who are there to take this forward.

From an engineering point of view, one has to be very clear that any person who wishes to travel from point A to point B in the city, would choose any particular mode of transport only when it is attractive. All this things comes from consumer theory, where you go to a shop and buy a product that gives you the highest attraction. The same is true for different modes of transportation. Unless you make cycling an attractive mode for an end-to-end travel, people will not use it. So your infrastructure system has to provide an end-to-end mobility solution with cycling, for people to use. Otherwise they will not use it. It has to become convenient.

Then comes the distance, since people will not like to use it for longer distances. So, the first question then is, can we have mixed land use development? When you have a mixed land use development, your distances between the place of residence and place of work or education, are shorter, which makes it conducive for people to cycle. You can then focus on improving cycling infrastructure in those corridors, in those localities, in those distances where you have this mixed land use. And this can be done based on the acceptable trip distance guidelines that is developed. The other thing to ask is - can cycling be used for longer distances? That is, can we integrate cycling with public transport? Can we allow people to take their cycles in metro rail cabins or on the front of the bus, by stacking them in racks, or inside the buses, so that towards the end, they can simply take their cycles and reach their destination?

In addition, we have to target the behaviour and attitude towards cycling. We need to create a real awareness and inform people about the overall benefits of cycling by advertising cycling as a cool mode of transport and as a very “next generation” mode. And that should not limit to just terrain biking or mountain  biking. If you look at the advertisements of cycling today, they only promote cycling as a mode which can be used for hiking, and terrain biking. Why can’t we promote and project cycling as a cool mode for commuting?

Once we have this all-round focus, we can create that complete ecosystem for cycling.

RM: That was insightful, thank you, Sir. Continuing this discussion, what according to you, can the stakeholders (public, government and academia) do to increase the adoption of cycling in Bengaluru ?

AV: That’s  a very interesting question! It always boils down to what comes first. So, in other words, it’s a chicken and egg problem. If you talk to the government and ask for more infrastructure and funds for improving cycling, they’ll ask - “Who wants to cycle? Where’s the demand? I don’t see people cycling!”. So, they’ll never do it. And it has actually happened from my own interaction with government officials. Whenever there is a proposal for a separate fund in the state budget, it is locked down based on the thinking -- “Who cycles? So, why do we need funds for that?”

On the other hand, from the people’s point of view, those who want to use it ask -- “How can I use cycling when I don’t have good infrastructure? I fear for my life and don’t feel safe.” I am one of those too, since I am a cyclist by choice. Fortunately, I stay inside the institute’s campus and my whole family has a short distance of commute and hence, all of us use cycles -- mostly within the campus or around the campus. I fear to take my cycle outside the campus, because it’s not a safe infrastructure -- there is no separate cycling lanes for me; it doesn’t provide me an end-to-end connectivity! Even to go to Malleshwaram, or Yeswanthpur for some shopping, I can’t think of using my cycle.

So, this is where we are stuck -- figuring out what comes first! As a policy initiative, I think the government has to think and decide that it is the government’s priority. It has to be a policy level decision to infuse funds, invest in funds and frame regulations that encourage usage of cycles and build infrastructure for cycling so as to provide an end-to-end connectivity.

From the people’s side, I think they have to make noise. Our country is a democracy -- things happen based on where politicians see their vote banks. So, if they see a vote bank of their constituency in cycle users, they will certainly try to do things. In that direction, I think initiatives like “Cycle Days” are good.  But, they should be scaled further up. We should eventually organise car free days in bigger areas, or probably in larger parts of the city, to show the government or policy-makers that there is a large amount of demand that was latent until now, and has come out. 

From the academica, more research has to go in creating guidelines for planning bicycle-friendly cities.  We need to understand the impact of specific policies that we wish to introduce to promote cycling – in terms of their impact on congestion, and on reducing pollution. We also need to study the effect of cycling as an active mode of transportation, as well as a healthier one. And from a behavioural point of view, there’s still a lot more research that needs to be done to understand what would make people choose cycling as a mode of transportation, and what factors would be conducive or favourable for the same. I think these kinds of studies, if done by researchers, would help create and improve solutions for cycling.

RM: In the light of all of this, do you think that starting small can help? And what are your thoughts on initiatives like “Namma Cycle”, that did not eventually succeed?

AV: Yes, starting small is good, but it’s not sufficient. I think that’s the bottom line! You have to have a vision about how you scale it. And eventually, it is all about an end-to-end mobility solution. People will choose a particular mode of transport only when they find it attractive, to be used for end-to-end trip making. Unless you create that ecosystem, any small initiative, if they remain isolated or small, will die down, which is also the case with “Namma Cycle”. We couldn’t scale it up. We need to have a clear vision as to how do we see cycling as a mode of transport for the city. Unless that is there, small will be a good initiative, but it will not be sufficient.

RM: Thank you Sir, for your thought-provoking insights. Lastly, what message would you like to convey to our readers/viewers on this World Bicycle Day?

AV: I think with today’s complex and stressful lifestyle that all of us have, cycling is a good way for everybody, not just to remain active, but to remain healthy. This could substantially reduce the cost of healthcare for the country, and for individuals. At the same time, this has a very clear effect in reducing the number of motorized vehicles on the road, thereby reducing the congestion, the noise due to honking, and a substantial amount of air pollution.  Cycling  would definitely have a long lasting impact in not just purifying the environment around us, but also making cities more liveable, and making us more healthier.

In the present context, there’s no other way for our cities to survive, but to switch over to sustainable modes of transport like cycling and walking. Gone are the days when people thought of owning and using a car as a symbol of wealth. There are other ways to flaunt wealth today!
Thank you.